It won’t be too much longer before Halloween will arrive and drive many of us to the front porch with a brimming bowl of candy, wondering if dolling out Reese Cups to small children makes us enablers. Personally, I remind myself that most grocery stores have had Halloween candy out since mid-August, and that my meager offering is just a drop in the ocean of chocolate and sugar through which kids navigate from August until January with all the craft and cunning of a 15th century explorer. For those not yet old enough to drive, October is a time for playful pranks and scary stories. Many adults join in the fun too, but for us October also presents a different spate of scares: heating bills, endless leaf collection, and, at least for me, the spectre of Christmas shopping season. (Fear grips me.)
This blog, befitting the fall festivities, takes a look at one of the spooky spectres that haunts houses: mold. Our immediate associations with mold read like a preview of a horrific B-Movie trailer: insidious infection, putrid pestilence, decay and death. At the core of all this apprehension is the fact that fungi frequently frightens us because of the health hazards it hastens. Mold can, at the low end, lead to irritation and congestion but also poses some serious health concerns too. But before we turn our attention directly to mold in houses, we need to step back and sharpen our understanding of just what mold is.
What is mold?
The first problem when talking about mold is falling into the trap of thinking that we’re dealing with a single thing (as the term implies) when, of course, millions of organisms fall under that same basic heading. Let’s remember that without mold, we’d have no cheese. Now that would be a real horror story! Some molds are benign, other irritants; and the equation changes from person to person. It is of paramount importance to remember that, in practical terms, mold-free houses are a myth. Only specially controlled environments like laboratories are mold-free. Fungal spores are everywhere. Think of the grandest estate you can imagine. It has mold somewhere. Oprah’s opulent mansion? Yup, it’s there. Bill Gates’ sprawling Pacific palace? Absolutely. Martha Stewart’s crafting castle? Yes. It’s probably well-organized and labeled, but it’s there.
Mold is ubiquitous, meaning that what we’re really talking about is management, not elimination. Now, if you or someone else who lives under your roof has health related issues caused by some kind of fungus, you will probably want to consult with a mold inspector / contractor. It may come as surprise, but mold is not something that either the Commonwealth of Virginia or the EPA delves into. Virginia has deregulated mold inspection, at least in part because the EPA does not regulate it. This means that mold inspectors in Virginia have privately awarded credentials. If you are in need of a mold inspector, my encouragement is to be upfront about asking about where a given inspector was awarded his or her credentials and what kind of courses had to be taken. Not all mold inspections are the same.
Amid all the various sprays and treatments different forms of mold remediation encompasses, it is important for conscientious consumers to keep the following equation in mind: mold, like all living organisms, need a couple of keep ingredients to thrive. It needs food, a certain temperature, and moisture. The first two are difficult to control. Almost any organic materials such as the wood that frames your house, the paper that decks the drywall, and even the dust in the walls is potential food for fungi. Likewise, innumerable irritants are just fine with temperatures ranging from below zero to well over one hundred degrees. The last element, water, is usually the best way to go about controlling mold levels. Without water, most molds will not be able to propagate at pernicious levels.
Where is mold frequently found?
Here we are, back at water management once again. The good news is that it usually doesn’t take Holmesian levels of erudition to track down the source of the moisture in the maw of the mold. I’ll give a few brief sketches of the three places I most frequently find mold to illustrate my point.
Moldy basements and crawlspaces are almost always the result of water settling next to the house or something that is producing water in the area like leaky plumbing or an overflowing sump-pump. Make sure that your downspouts are moving water at least 6’ from the foundation walls. Sometimes more air circulation is needed to help dry these spaces as well.
Icky air-handlers are frequently festooned with fungus because they are dirty (remember dust is a food source) and because a ready source of water is at hand. Air conditioners produce a lot of water from condensation during the warm months of the year – and the dirtier the evaporator coil (interior part of the air conditioner) is, the more condensation it produces. Failing to keep the HVAC system clean can create a self-perpetuating environment perfect for mold.
So to, mold often lurks around appliances and fixtures: under sinks, dishwashers, and even around washing machines. In these instances small, barely noticeable leaks are often the culprit. That slow leak between sections of pipe that drops a drip once every minute or two is more than enough to make a closed off area like a sink cabinet a veritable mold museum.
Endless variations of these examples can be found and no two houses are alike, but the common thread to focus on is the presence of water in places that are supposed to be dry. The simplest fungal fixes I have come across simply involve repairing a leak or changing a filter. Other instances are more complicated, from re-grading the lot around a house to replacing drywall and installing new fixtures. In any case, my encouragement is to start with an assessment of what is making a mold-friendly habitat. Further, remember that using chemicals to kill mold is effective in the moment, but won’t hold up long term if the conditions that made the mold multiply in the first place don’t get addressed.
I once inspected a house for a couple who were on the verge of walking away from the home because I found mold in the attic air-handler. The verb they used was “infected”. The house was infected with mold. My advice to those buyers, and the same advice I would give anyone, is to avoid thinking of mold in Sci-Fi terms. (I refrained from telling them that more than half the air-handlers I inspect have mold in them.) Is mold opportunistic? Yes. Is it a health hazard? Absolutely can be. Are there houses that should be razed from face of the earth because of mold? Maybe – probably somewhere in Louisiana, if I had to guess. But for the most part, addressing what causes mold comes down to good ol’ water management. Regarding the couple mentioned above, they quickly found that the house was not cursed. It just had a dirty HVAC system and, as of my writing, neither of them has been carried away in the inky black clutches of some malevolent mold monster.
Wait. That might be a good Halloween costume.